Author Archives: Barbara

Zen History; Our History

This is the prepared text of a talk I gave on Zoom at Treeleaf Zendo, June 21, 2020. There is a video recording here

I want to speak today about why I think it’s important for Zen students to know something about Zen history.

My first Zen teacher, the late John Daido Loori, used to say that we all live in a box, and the dimensions of the box are made up of who we think we are and what we think our life should be.

The function of psychotherapy and most popular self-improvement programs is to remodel the box ― bring in nicer furniture, maybe expand the space, put in some windows to let light in. But the function of Zen is to help us realize that there is no box.

And it’s only by looking closely at what the box is made of that the ephemeral nature of the box is revealed.

Stories are a common element of boxes. As we live our lives we tend to craft a personal narrative that is all about “me” ― who I think I am, what I think my life should be. The dramatic tension of our story is created by all the ways circumstances frustrate us by not conforming to our expectations and giving us what we want.  And deep down, perhaps we cling to a hope that eventually the plotlines will bend in our favor and we can live happily ever after.

Maintaining this personal, ongoing story in which we are the star is one of the ways we maintain our belief in a continuing, permanent self. It’s how we craft our personal identity. The Buddha understood this, and he taught people how to break the connection to their narratives through mindfulness. By paying moment-to-moment attention just to what is, without judgments or intellectual filters or placing experience in any other context, we can begin to realize the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves aren’t reality, and that person starring in our story isn’t really who we are.

A few years ago the Zen teacher Norman Fischer published a book called Sailing Home that is about exploring our personal stories. He wrote that when we stop getting lost in our own plotlines, with their tensions and expectations, we begin to see the feedback loops and old tapes that keep us stuck in suffering.

In the book, Norman Fischer suggested an exercise in which we begin with our earliest memory and then tell our life story as a story and not as a resume. Take two or three memories from childhood, from adolescence, from early adulthood, and so on, and then create a story that connects the memories. Then, go back, dredge up a different set of memories, and do it again. You might find you’ve told two very different stories about two apparently very different people. This exercise might put the question of “who do you think you are?” in a new light.

However, I think it also has to be said that none of us can ever stop crafting a personal story. It’s something we humans are wired to do. We just need to make sure our story is honest and that if provides a healthy psychological foundation for practice and for being a functional human being. And perhaps we shouldn’t take the story too seriously.

Now, history might be defined as the creation of an ongoing narrative on a collective scale. I suspect historians would hate that definition, but let’s go with it for now. In ancient times, what was called history was mostly folktales and myths, some of which might have been based on events that really happened, although not necessarily. These narratives were critical to creating the identities of tribes, or clans, or ethnic groups, or kingdoms. They told people who they were in a collective sense, as members of a particular group.  Sometimes histories had to be revised when there was a change in the group, such as a new dynasty conquering an old one. Often when that happened stories about the old kings were forgotten and their images were smashed and replaced.

In the modern era, scholars took hold of history and insisted it be only about events that really happened. That’s a wonderful ideal that hasn’t yet been fulfilled. It is a fact that even now history is revised all the time as new generations of scholars bring new sensibilities and points of view to it.

If we go back to the exercise about creating different stories about ourselves based on different sets of memories, you can apply that to how historians have, consciously or unconsciously, shaped our views about things that have happened in the past. You can take this set of facts and interpret them this way to tell this story; you can take that set of facts and interpret them that way to tell that story. And the two stories may both be factual but still contradict each other.

 Right now in the United States we’re having a struggle over relatively recent history. The American Civil War ended 155 years ago, not in 437 BC, and there are vast archives of records documenting exactly what happened. Yet we can’t agree on how that history is told.

In spite of all the memes on social media that complain about people living in the past, the truth is that even though the war is long over, the history of it is very much part of the collective meta-box Americans live in. Much of the standard history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era that followed, and the way that history was taught in American schools for more than a century, was crafted by southern scholars who were Confederate apologists.  And these apologists did a bang-up job of  indoctrinating generations of American students into a whitewashed and highly romanticized perspective of that part of our history. In other words, thanks to the way this part of our story is told, we have avoided confronting and atoning for slavery all these years.

The facts of this history cannot be disputed. The people who pushed the South into secession were very open in their letters, speeches, and official documents that their primary objective was to maintain a white supremacist culture and the institution of slavery. That’s what they were all about. There is copious documentation for this. Yet that plain fact was not being taught in schools when I was a student, and I don’t know how much it’s being taught now.

So in much of American popular culture, which is the place where we tell our stories about who we think we are and what we think America should be, the Confederacy was about dashing and noble gentlemen warriors fighting for some fuzzy idea of states’ rights or even liberty, not about wealthy slave owners desperate to maintain their wealth and status as lords of a system that was worse than feudalism.

Newer generations of academic historians to this day are working to counter the pro-Confederate romanticism  still embedded in American history textbooks and popular literature to tell a more honest story of the Civil War that doesn’t try to pretend it wasn’t about slavery. But I think that must be done before the nation can finally move on and live up to its own ideals of justice and equality. Until we can tell our story of our past correctly, we’re not going to get the present and future right, either.

Buddhist history also has been subject to considerable myth-making and revision. There is very little of the first five or so centuries of Buddhist history that we know with any certainty. What records that we have are fragmentary and conflicting, because they were compiled after the fact by people with obvious points to prove and axes to grind. These records may contain some clues but can’t be accepted at face value as historical fact.

In recent years early Buddhist history has become something of a blank slate on which people, in the West especially, have painted their own versions of what they want it to be.  And apparently what they want it to be is more European. 

Currently some western philosophy professors and some authors of popular Buddhist books have worked very hard to pull the historical Buddha out of India and move him closer to Europe, especially Greece.

Now, there really is reason to believe there was cross-pollination between Greek and Buddhist civilizations for a time. As I wrote in the first chapter of The Circle of the Way, beginning about the 2nd century BCE and through the early centuries of the first millennium CE, a large part of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and beyond, was a center of Buddhist civilization, primarily Mahayana Buddhism. And this same area was a crossroads of civilizations in which Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, and possibly Chinese cultures intermingled. This is important to Zen because we know that most of the Buddhist monks who introduced Buddhism to China in the early first millennium CE came from this same area, following merchants east on the Silk Road into China. So if people see some influence of Greek thought in Mahayana Buddhism, it’s a good guess that’s where it happened.

But “some influence” isn’t good enough for some people. In recent years I’ve seen people who speak with authoritative voices declare that the historical Buddha probably wasn’t influenced by the religions and philosophies of India very much, if at all. Let me just say without going into a lot of detail that that position is utterly unsupportable.

And I ran into a scholar recently who was very sure that the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness appeared suddenly in Buddhism from Greek texts smuggled into monasteries and did not evolve naturally and organically from the historical Buddha’s teachings, as it certainly seems to have evolved.  Apparently Asians needed Greeks to explain it to them.

I’m only going to say that one should be enormously skeptical of attempts to make the Buddha and Buddhism more European and less Asian, even when the person making these claims teaches in a university and has a ton of Ph.D.s  I am not saying that these people are consciously racist, but I honestly do believe their, shall we say, ethnocentric biases are causing them to project things they want to see on Buddhist history that aren’t actually there. Historians are human beings, and unfortunately the discipline of history has no equivalent to the scientific method to filter out biases.

Now we have Buddhism introduced to China, beginning in the 1st century CE. And now I’m going to be challenged to pronounce Chinese names; let me warn you that I spell better than I pronounce. But I’ll do my best.

China was the great petri dish for Mahayana Buddhism that cultured much extraordinary scholarship and a rich diversity of schools, including Huayan, Pure Land, and Tiantai as well as Zen, which of course in China was called Chan.

In the first few centuries of Buddhism in China there seem not to have been rigid differences among schools. All Buddhist monastics received the same ordination; one was not a Tiantai nun or a Huayan nun, but a Buddhist nun. Monastics often traveled from one teacher to another seeking the dharma, and often they didn’t limit themselves to teachers of just one tradition. That said, in time sectarian rivalries formed, and self-preservation demanded that a tradition not only have highly regarded teachers but a respectable backstory.

Most of the stories we’ve all heard about the Six Patriarchs and early Chinese masters come from records compiled during the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279. These are the stories in the classic lamplight records and koan collections that are Zen’s shared history. As I explained in Circle of the Way, however, many of these stories aren’t so much history as myth. You might call some of them “fan fiction.”

One of the things I tried to do in the book was chart a course between the traditional stories and current academic scholarship into Zen history. Most of the time, the two things don’t line up very well. Frankly, most of the story of early Zen that we’ve all heard from teachers is post hoc invention to create a respectable backstory. This includes everything we’ve ever heard about Bodhidharma. It also includes the first thousand years or so of the transmission lineage, which appears to have been invented about the year 690 to enhance the status of a just-deceased teacher named Faru, or to enhance the status of the Shaolin Temple, where the lineage was first inscribed, or both.

Knowing this, what do we do with the tradition of lineage? Keep it. The charts are probably accurate for the past several centuries, which is worthy of respect. The tradition of transmission is well established and is the principle container that has enabled Zen to be passed from generation to generation for a very long time. I see no reason to change that.

There is no story more central to Zen’s identity than that of the 6th Patriarch, Huineng. For that we can thank the Platform Sutra, which is a wonderful text written in Huineng’s voice that expresses much wisdom. However, the academic scholars insist that the original Platform Sutra ― it got longer through the centuries ― was written about 70 years after Huineng died, and probably not by someone who knew him.

Some of the stories in the Platform Sutra about Huineng’s life couldn’t have happened, the scholars say. For example, the famous poetry contest that secured Huineng as the Sixth Patriarch couldn’t have happened, because Huineng and senior student Shenxiu did not study in the Fifth Patriarch’s temple at the same time.

But the Platform in many ways became the glue that held the Zen tradition together through the upheavals of the late Tang Dynasty and after, which some other Chinese Buddhist schools did not survive. The Platform’s teachings, whoever composed them, were embraced. The literary figure of Huineng, which may or may not bear much resemblance to the real Huineng, became the ideal prototype of a Zen teacher for a very long time. It elevated the Diamond Sutra, and the prajnaparamita sutras generally, as the scriptures most central to Zen, which they are to this day.

So, while the Platform Sutra should not be read as history, the Platform itself played a critical role in Zen history. What should we do with it now? Read it, study it, absorb it, as many generations of Zen students have done.

The koan literature is rich and useful, but it isn’t history. Some of these bits of dialogue and anecdote may be based on events that really happened, and some may be outright inventions. If you want to put them into the category of myth, that’s okay with me.

But to call something myth is not to say it isn’t true, just that it isn’t factual. Truth and factuality are not always the same thing. We’ve already seen that it’s possible to string selective facts together to express something false. By the same token, myths can express something that is deeply true but not easy to talk about.

I like something the religion scholar Karen Armstrong said about myth in an NPR interview some years ago. “Myth is about the unknown,” she said.  “It is about that for which initially we have no words. Myth therefore looks into the heart of a great silence.” She also said that a myth is something that in some sense may have happened once but which also happens all the time.

So, for example, when we hear the story of the Second Patriarch who stood outside Bodhidharma’s cave in the snow and finally cut off his own arm to get Bodhidharma’s attention ― and then proceeded to have a sensible conversation ― we might suspect that didn’t really happen. But if you think that story is about two guys who lived in the 6th century, you’re missing the point. In truth, the story is about you. It’s about everyone who first walks into a Zen center or temple, full of questions and confusion, seeking the dharma. You may not have even known it was the dharma you were seeking, just that you thought were missing something. Or maybe your “standing outside in the snow” moment came, or will come, later in your practice. We may not literally have to stand in the snow outside a cave and cut off our own arm. But metaphorically, maybe. In some way. It’s up to you to work out how the myth relates to you. It’s up to you to clarify what you’re doing in Zen, and whether the thing you think you are seeking is really what you’re seeking, or if you were ever really missing anything. And then Bodhidharma will say, “I have put your mind at rest.”

So, we can appreciate myths as myths and history as history, as long as we don’t mix them up.  When we do mix them up, it can have unfortunate consequences. For example, one of the points I make in the book is that the fabled connection between Zen and samurai warrior martial arts is way overblown. There’s a little bit of connection, but on the whole that connection is more myth than history. But it’s a myth that has been robustly romanticized and widely believed, and this possibly was a factor in the support of Zen institutions of Japan’s military aggressions in the 20th century. I believe that for a time this myth also impacted how western Zen identified itself. My first few sesshins back in the nineteen eighties struck me as being more like Marine boot camp than anything else. The atmosphere was very macho, very martial. I understand that a macho atmosphere permeated many western Zen centers and temples of the time. From what I’ve seen this appears be less true now, possibly because samurai macho Zen has smacked into western feminism. Which is just as well.

So let’s talk about the history as history. Something that I realized while I was writing Circle of the Way is that Zen doesn’t really have a starting point. In the traditional stories Zen is said to have been founded in China by Bodhidharma at about the beginning of the 6th century, give or take. But in truth all of the elements of teaching and practice associated with early Zen got to China before Bodhidharma did. And Zen didn’t become a distinctive school of Chinese Buddhism until some time after Bodhidharma was long gone. It appears the school wasn’t known collectively as Chan Buddhism until about the 10th century or so.

The Zen that China gave the world was, for the most part, Song Dynasty Zen. The Song Dynasty began more than four centuries after we believe Bodhidharma got to China. One of the academic historians I used as a source argues that Zen didn’t really become Zen until the Song Dynasty. This scholar, Morten Schlutter, even wrote a book focusing on Song Dynasty Zen history called How Zen Became Zen. It’s actually not too bad; I learned a lot from it.

But some might ask, if Zen wasn’t Zen until then, what was it before that? When did Zen begin? This reminds me a bit of the story of King Melinda’s chariot ― if you take it apart, at what point does the collection of parts stop being a chariot? And, of course, from the perspective of Buddhism, that’s the wrong question, since chariot is just an expedient designation for something that exists only in a relative sense.

Like all other phenomena, Zen is something composed of many parts, without self-essence, that came about because of ever-changing causes and conditions, and we identify it with a particular name because we have to call it something to talk about it. I argue that to fully appreciate what Zen is, one should know something about how it came together to be what it is now, which is what Circle of the Way is about.

I came to realize that the way the story of early Zen traditionally is told, with its focus on the Six Patriarchs, is not terribly functional. The whole emphasis on a patriarchal lineage obscures the presence and contributions of women, of course. But beyond that, I’m not sure the Patriarchs are all that important. You really see Zen taking shape in the early Tang Dynasty, which began in 618, through the work of teachers who were not Patriarchs. I’m thinking in particular of Mazu Daoyi, who gave us “ordinary mind is the way,” and Shitou Xiqian, who gave us the Sandokai ― the identity of relative and absolute.  We could also thank the true author of the original Platform Sutra, another Tang Dynasty work, even if we don’t know who that was. I don’t have a problem calling these early masters “Zen” masters, even if they didn’t call themselves that.

Even before that, many of the contributions of the very early Oxhead school, which was founded roughly a century before Mazu started teaching, are still deeply embedded in Zen today.  This deserves to be remembered. On the other hand, the Third Patriarch was probably a name picked out of a hat to serve as a patch between Number Two and Number Four.

After the Tang Dynasty and a messy interim period came the Song Dynasty. During the Song Dynasty the many loosely aligned lineages that claimed Huineng as a common ancestor became recognized as a distinctive tradition called Chan. Frankly, what pulled it together was not just teaching and practice developed by the Tang masters but also a boatload of shared myth that had been adopted as history and gave the widely dispersed teachers and students a shared identity.

During the Song Dynasty the bits of stories called koans were preserved in the classic collections, beginning with the Blue Cliff Record in 1125. Koan contemplation was invented in the 12th century and widely embraced, although the Caodong lineages maintained a meditation practice based on earlier forms. Dogen studied with a Caodong teacher in Song China and brought that tradition to Japan in the 13th century, calling it Soto Zen. Soon other monastics brought the koan-contemplating practice to Japan also and founded the Rinzai school.

Although Zen got to Korea earlier, there was enough cross-pollination between Korean and Chinese Zen during the Song Dynasty that it can be said the Zen of Korea evolved from Song Dynasty Zen. Zen got to Vietnam earlier, too, but Vietnamese Zen today mostly evolved from the teachings of Chinese Linji masters fleeing the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century.

This history is the basic foundation of Zen as it exists today, including Zen in the West. But Zen in the West is, I think, in a precarious place. It seems to be evolving in twenty directions at once. Sokei-an Sasaki said that bringing Zen to the West was like “holding a lotus to a rock, waiting for it to take root.” He believed establishing Zen in the west would take a few centuries, and he has yet to be proved wrong.

Since the Beat Zen era of the 1950s Zen has been in danger of being completely swamped by western popular culture, which may have embraced Zen as being cool but also wants it to be something other than what it is or has ever been.

In some ways it’s gotten worse since the Web was invented. All manner of people who clearly have little personal experience with a teacher and don’t know what end of the incense stick to light set themselves up as experts and spew their own opinions about Zen to the world, and it’s hard for traditional Zen to compete with play-pretend Zen.  The Zen teacher James Ford wrote recently that such people “tend to contribute to a ‘dumbing down’ of our Western understanding of what Zen is. Bottom line there’s a lot of noise and a lot less signal, as some might say, out on the inter webs.”  

At the same time, people who are sincerely practicing in the Zen tradition face many challenges about how to make it work. In Asia, although there have been lay Zen students since at least the early Tang Dynasty, it has always been primarily a monastic tradition. Yet most of us in the West are lay students, with jobs and families and overstuffed schedules. The old Asian model, in which monastics do most of the practicing while laypeople support them with alms, just doesn’t work here. As I wrote in Circle of the Way, there’s a lot of experimenting going on right now to figure out how to make teaching and practice more accessible to laypeople. And I wish us all a lot of luck.

But at this very fluid and precarious moment in Zen history I strongly suggest that Zen take ownership of its history, by which I mean history and not just the traditional stories. I spent the large part of three years immersed in contemporary scholarship on Zen history, and let me say that the academics, with very few exceptions, are making a mess of it. They get the facts and dates right, I assume, but their conclusions and interpretations, especially of the teachings, are often ridiculous. I have compared them to tone deaf people who write histories of opera. And some of them obviously hate opera and don’t know why anyone listens to it. 

My editor at Shambhala told me that he had once hoped to pursue an advanced degree in Buddhist studies. He gave up on the idea because one of the professors for his undergrad honors thesis, which concerned the modern history of Zen, was openly antagonistic to Zen. Perhaps that was just one teacher, but I have seen the same antagonism in much of the current scholarship.

There’s a wonderfully snarky critique of academic scholarship on Zen that was written by Victor Sogen Hori, whom you might recognize as a Zen scholar who has published some wonderful work on koans. Sogen, a Canadian, spent 13 years studying as a monk in Japan and also has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University, so he’s someone with a foot in both worlds. Anyway, he wrote an introduction to Volume 2 of Heinrich Dumoulin’s Zen Buddhism: A History, in an edition published in 2006 by World Wisdom. It’s worth looking up and reading. He calls out prominent, still influential scholars who portray Zen as a bad joke and nothing but a vast game of deception. And I cite some of these same scholars in my book, because they are the mainstream of academic study. But I concur with Sogen’s opinion. 

It would be great if we could open a respectful dialogue between Zen practitioners and the academic scholars, but frankly at the moment I don’t think that’s possible. I’ve seen some attempts already that did not go well. The current crop of academics too often assume that they must discount our opinions of our own tradition because, obviously, we cannot be objective, but they are blind to their own biases. But for that reason, the academic scholars must not be entrusted as the sole guardians of Zen history.

And this is important to us, because we need a respectful but honest accounting of the history to keep us grounded as we go forward. The history is embedded in Zen teachings, whether we know it or not. It is reflected in the liturgy, robes, and rituals, and in zazen itself. Some of the old myths may or may not transfer well from Asian to western culture and might be tweaked or eliminated. But the history is what it is. And it’s a wonderful history. For the most part. And the parts that are less than wonderful need to be acknowledged and understood, too. We can learn from them. 

My teacher Jion Susan Postal used to talk about what she called the “three infinities.” I believe this formula was original with Susan. These are infinite kindness to the past, infinite service to the present, infinite responsibility to the future. These three infinities cannot be separated. By taking good care of the present, we take care of the past and future as well.

By understanding and appreciating Zen history ― our history ― we can better understand ourselves as Zen students and teachers. And by better understanding our history we can do a better job of taking care of this incredible legacy we’ve been given by our dharma ancestors.

Hakuin, Snail on Plantain Leaf

Anathapindika, the Great Benefactor

Anathapindika was a lay disciple and benefactor of the historical Buddha. His generosity toward the Buddha and his monks became the ideal of lay support of the monastic sangha. His original name was Sudatta.

To appreciate Anathapindika’s role in Buddhist history, one must understand the way the first Buddhist monks lived. They took shelter in forests, sleeping among tree roots. They had no roofs over their heads other than what nature provided.

The Buddha and his disciples did not stay in any one place, except during rainy season. Most of the time they traveled from one village to another, teaching the dharma and begging for their food. Possibly the Buddha felt they should not stay in any one place so that they wouldn’t deplete any community’s food supplies. Only during the summer monsoon rains did they remain in one place, devoting themselves to intensive study and practice.

Sudatta’s Journey

One day, about a year after the Buddha’s enlightenment, the wealthy merchant Sudatta left his home in Savatthi (which was in what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh in India) and traveled to Rajagaha (the site of present-day Rajgir, in the state of Bihar) on business.

His married sister lived in Rajagaha with her well-to-do husband, and Sudatta went to her home for a visit.

To his surprise, the members of the household were too busy to greet Sudatta. They were bustling about preparing a meal for many guests. Are you hosting a wedding? asked Sudatta. Is the king coming?

But Sudatta’s brother-in-law replied that the meal was for a buddha, an enlightened one, and his monks. Sudatta was astonished, then excited. He became so eager to meet the Buddha that he couldn’t sleep, and he didn’t want to wait for the dinner to meet the Buddha.

While it was still night Sudatta left his sister’s house and began to walk to where the Buddha was staying. According to tradition, Sudatta became afraid in the dark, but his determination to keep going scattered the darkness.

He found the Buddha walking in meditation in the early dawn. “Come, Sudatta,” the Buddha said, calling him by name, although they had never met before. Sudatta, awestruck, threw himself at the Buddha’s feet. “I hope you slept peacefully, Blessed One,” Sudatta said.

“One who is unbound to sensual pleasure and acquisition sleeps at ease,” the Buddha replied.

The Buddha saw that Sudatta was ready to receive teachings, and so he taught the Four Noble Truths to Sudatta. Sudatta had an opening insight that day. The Buddha would call his lay disciple Anathapindika (“feeder of the orphans or helpless”).

The First Monastery

The next day the Buddha and his monks dined at the home of Anathapindika’s sister and brother-in-law. After the dinner, Anathapindika invited the Buddha and his monks to spend the next monsoon season in in Savatthi. The Buddha accepted, adding “The Tathagatas, oh householder, take pleasure in solitude.”

Arriving home in Savatthi, Anathapindika looked for a property appropriate for the Buddha’s rainy-season retreat. He found a forest glade near Savatthi that belonged to Prince Jeta. The price was dear — 18 million gold coins. And he was allowed to buy only as much land as he could cover with his gold coins.

When the coins were laid out, only a small area on the edge of the grove remained bare. Then Prince Jeta, moved by Anathapindika’s devotion, announced that he would build an imposing gate tower there at his own expense.

Anathapindika was not done. He spent more of his wealth building a meeting hall, a dining hall, sleeping cells, wells, lotus ponds, and whatever else the monks might need during their solitary rains retreats. And he surrounded the property with a great wall. This was the very first Buddhist monastery.

Today, readers of the sutras will notice that the Buddha delivered many of his discourses “in the Jeta Grove, in Anathapindika’s Monastery.” The Buddha did not live there permanently, but it became his customary place to stay during the summer rains retreats.

Anathapindika the Householder and Student

This is not the end of Anathapindika’s story. Many stories about him and his family are recorded in the Pali texts. His wife became a devoted follower of the Buddha also, and delighted in taking care of the monks who came to the house for alms.

There were four children, three daughters and a son. The daughters also devoted themselves to the dharma. The son resisted, preferring to pursue wealth, but eventually he gained in insight also and became a benefactor of the Buddha like his father. The monks would call him “Little Anathapindika.”

Anathapindika the elder remained a student for the rest of his life. His devotion to the Buddha was such that when he came to hear the Buddha speak he sat quietly and did not ask questions. He did not want the Buddha to feel obligated to cater to him because of his patronage.

Instead, he would modestly wait to one side in case the Buddha chose to speak to him and offer instruction. If the Buddha said nothing, then sometimes then Anathapindika would speak, offering some anecdote from his daily life. And then he would wait to see if his teacher had comments or criticisms to offer. Most of the Buddha’s advice and teachings that are specifically for laypeople are taken from his instructions to Anathapindika.

When Anathapindika was on his deathbed he asked for the Buddha’s disciples Sariputra and Ananda to come to him, probably because he was too modest to make demands of the Buddha. Sariputra’s words to the dying Anathapindika are recorded in the Anathapindikovada Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 143), which include more advanced teachings, usually reserved for monks, than Anathapindika had heard before. But at that point he had renounced all attachments to worldly things and was ready to hear it.

And Anathapindika shed tears, and he said, “Venerable Sariputra, please let this sort of talk on the dharma be given to lay people clad in white. There are clansmen with little dust in their eyes who are wasting away through not hearing this teaching. There will be those who will understand it.” His last thought was for the enlightenment of others. And later that day, after Ananda and Sariputra left him, he died.

[This post was one I wrote for the About.com Buddhism site, but since the host company is no longer making it public, rights reverst to me.]

The Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-nama-mahayana-sutra

A Buddhist “Just War” Theory?

The generously titled Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-nama-mahayana-sutra — Arya-Satyakaparivarta for short — is a Mahayana Buddhist Sutra written some time before the 5th century CE, possibly earlier. It appears to be canonical only within Tibetan Buddhism.

As literature it’s not in the same class as the great Mahayana sutras — the Lotus, the Heart, the Diamond, the Flower Garland, the Vimalakirti, etc.

— most of which date to the 2nd century CE, give or take. But it’s of interest for a couple of reasons. One, according to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, this sutra may be the only Buddhist scripture that spells out anything approximating a Buddhist “just war” theory. The other is that some alarming things are being said about it in western academia.

Misreadings

For example, in the book Buddhist Warfare, edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer (Oxford University Press, 2010), an essay titled “Making Merit Through Warfare and Torture According to the Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-Sutra” claims the sutra actually promotes violence, including war and torture, as a means to make merit toward realizing enlightenment.

The author, Stephen Jenkins, is a professor of religious studies at Humboldt State University.

The only English translation is by Lozang Jamspal (The Range of the Bodhisattva, a Mahayana Sutra, American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2010), which Professor Jenkins cites as the translation he is using. I acquired a copy, and read it. I assure you that the claim that the sutra somehow condones or promotes violence as a means to realize enlightenment is bogus.

Jenkins’s arguments rests heavily on analysis of other texts, Hindu and Buddhist, that Jenkins claims use similar wording and also promote violence. Among these is the Cula-Saccaka Sutta, in which, according to Jenkins, an armed bodyguard accompanying the Buddha threatened to kill a character named Saccaka, whom Jenkins calls Satyavaca, unless he conceded that kings have the authority to execute criminals. This interpretation not only misses the point of the sutta; it is simply not a factual account of the story the sutta tells. The “bodyguard” is a kind of celestial spirit, and the question Saccaka is pressed to answer by the spirit is about the nature of the self, not the virtue of executions.

“Just War?”

So what does the Arya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-nama-mahayana-sutra say about warfare and torture?

Regarding torture, the speaker in the sutra, a sage named Satyavadin, advises that a king should chastise people in a benevolent manner, which is explained this way —

“When a ruler believes that punishment [of the wicked] will not be effected by means of mere obloquy, then, concentrating on love and compassion and without resort to killing, damaging of sense organs, or cutting off of limbs, he should try warning, scolding, rebuking, or beating them, or confiscating their property, exiling them from the state, tying them up, or imprisoning them. A ruler should be tough, but not in any heavier ways than these.”

Variations of this same wording are repeated several times and constitute the sutra’s advice for handling unrepentant prisoners. Here in the 21st century we do think of tying people up and beating them as “torture,” but I’m not sure the people who lived when this sutra was written would have seen it that way, especially given other options available at the time. But that’s as close to advocating “torture” as the sutra gets.

And then if the chastised individual mends his ways and behaves responsibly, the king obtains merit. However, he would obtain the same merit if he could get the prisoner to reform by reading him poetry. The punishment itself is not what earns the merit.

As far as warfare is concerned, the sutra explicitly denies any merit to wars of conquest or aggression. A ruler may use arms to defend his kingdom and protect his people, but he may only use as much force as is necessary to expel invaders. Once they are expelled, he must not seek to punish the invaders but instead try to make peace with them. Even better, he should do what he can to prevent war in the first place, such as settling disputes or making alliances with other kingdoms so that an aggressive foreign king would think twice about starting a war.

If the kingdom is invaded, the king is advised to deploy his forces in an advantageous manner to ensure victory. Injuring and killing the invaders should be avoided if possible, although it is acknowledged that this may not be possible.

But if the king has sincerely done his best to avoid war, if the self-defense is carried out so that there is no punishment or vengeance heaped upon the invaders, and if the king “undertakes these measures for the protection of the people and for the sake of their families, wives, and children without concern for himself and his property and possessions, he greatly will increase his immeasurable merit.”

It’s not warfare that earns merit, but carrying out the defense of a kingdom with the least possible harm — including harm to the invaders — that earns the merit.

The warfare section is only a small part of the Aryan-Bodhisattva-gocara-upayaisaya-vikurvana-nirdesa-nama-mahayana-sutra. Other chapters cover the Six Perfections and upaya, or skillful means, among other things. Lozang Jamspal’s translation is very clear and readable and deserves to be widely read, if only to dispel accusations about what it says.

The Disciple Angulimala: From Serial Killer to Enlightened Monk

Angulimala’s story is found in two places in the Pali Sutta-pitaka. It in in the Angulimala Sutta, which is the 86th sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya, and the story is also told in the Theragatha, which is part of the Khuddaka Nikaya. Here is the story as told in the Angulimala Sutta.

Angulimala’s Story

Once when the Buddha was staying in the monastery built by Anathapindika, he arose one morning, put on his robe, and went out to beg for alms. After he had returned to the monastery and eaten his meal, he set out walking on the road to where Angulimala was known to be staying.

As he walked, farmers and herders saw him and warned him to go no further.

Angulimala, wearer of the mala of fingers, had slaughtered whole villages, they said. As many as forty men had walked together down that road and had all died by Angulimala’s hand. The Buddha heard this, but said nothing and kept walking.

As the Buddha continued to walk, more people saw him and warned him to stop. A second and third time the Buddha was warned about the fierce Angulimala who could slaughter forty men at once and who had left entire villages dead. The Buddha said nothing, but kept walking.

Finally Angulimala himself saw the Buddha and was astonished to see a man walking alone. He picked up his sword, bow and quiver and ran toward the Buddha.

Then a remarkable thing happened. The Buddha was walking at a normal pace, but as fast as Angulimala ran, he could not catch up. Finally, in exasperation, Angulimala yelled “Stop!”

At this, the Buddha spoke. “I have stopped, Angulimala,” he said, still walking. “You stop.”

Angulimala said, “You say you have stopped, but you still walk. I have stopped, but you say I haven’t. How can you say you have stopped and I have not?”

“I have cast off violence toward living beings,” the Buddha said. “I have stopped causing harm. You, however, kill without restraint. That’s why I say I have stopped and you have not.”

Angulimala was so moved that this holy man had come to save him, he threw his weapons into a pit and prostrated himself before the Buddha. He became a disciple of the Buddha on the spot, and then the two returned together to Anathapindika’s monastery.

Read More: The First Precept, Do Not Kill

Angulimala’s Pardon and Enlightenment

This is not yet the end of the story. One day the King and 500 soldiers on horseback and in chariots came and entered the monastery grounds. The King told the Buddha he was looking for the terrible bandit Angulimala. “I’m going to find that fellow and put an end to him!” The King said.

“I must ask you something,” the Buddha said. “What if you were to find that Angulimala had shaved his hair and beard, and put on monk’s robes. And what if you learned that he is living a virtuous life and keeping the Precepts. What would you do?”

“I would bow to him,” the King said, “and offer him alms, robe cloth and lodging.”

At this, the Buddha pointed to Angulimala and said, “There he is. And you do not need to fear him.”

The astonished King questioned Angulimala and became satisfied that this was, indeed, the terrible murderer, now gentled. And the King kept his word. He bowed to Angulimala and offered to give him food, robe cloth and a place to live. But Angulimala said he needed nothing he didn’t have already. And the King departed.

Angulimala spent most of the rest of his life in seclusion in a forest, meditating and keeping his monastic vows. In time he realized enlightenment and became an arhat.

Protestant Buddhism

You may stumble into the term “Protestant Buddhism,” especially on the Web. If you don’t know what that means, don’t feel left out. There are lots of people using the term today who don’t know what it means, either.

In the context of a lot of current Buddhist criticism, “Protestant Buddhism” appears to refer to a tepid western approximation of Buddhism, practiced mostly by upper-income whites, and characterized by an emphasis on self-improvement and rigidly enforced niceness. But that’s not what the term originally meant.

Origin of the Term

The original Protestant Buddhism grew out of a protest, and not in the West, but in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, became a British territory in 1796. At first Britain declared it would respect the people’s dominant religion, Buddhism. But this declaration raised a furor among evangelical Christians in Britain, and the government quickly backtracked.

Instead, Britain’s official policy became one of conversion, and Christian missionaries were encouraged to open schools all over Ceylon to give the children a Christian education. For Sinhalese Buddhists, conversion to Christianity became a prerequisite for business success.

Late in the 19th century Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) became the leader of a Buddhist protest/revival movement. Dharmapala also was a modernist who promoted a vision of Buddhism as a religion compatible with science and western values, such as democracy. It is charged that Dharmapala’s understanding of Buddhism bore traces of his Protestant Christian education in the missionary schools.

The scholar Gananath Obeyesekere, currently an emeritus professor of anthropology at Princeton University, is credited with coining the phrase “Protestant Buddhism.” It describes this 19th century movement, both as a protest and ask an approach to Buddhism that was influenced by Protestant Christianity.

The Protestant Influences

As we look at these so-called Protestant influences, it’s important to remember that this applies mostly to the conservative Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and not to Buddhism as a whole.

For example, one of these influences was a kind of spiritual egalitarianism. In Sri Lanka and many other Theravada countries, traditionally only monastics practiced the full Eightfold Path, including meditation; studied the sutras; and might possibly realize enlightenment. Laypeople were mostly just told to keep the Precepts and to make merit by giving alms to monks, and perhaps in a future life they might be monastics themselves.

Mahayana Buddhism already had rejected the idea that only a select few could walk the path and realize enlightenment. For example, the Vimalakirti Sutra (ca. 1st century CE) centers on a layman whose enlightenment surpassed even the Buddha’s disciples. A central theme of the Lotus Sutra (ca. 2nd century CE) is that all beings will realize enlightenment.

That said — As explained by Obeyesekere and also by Richard Gombrich, currently president of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, the elements of Protestantism adopted by Dharmapala and his followers included the rejection of a clerical “link” between the individual and enlightenment and an emphasis on individual spiritual effort. If you are familiar with early Protestantism vis à vis Catholicism, you will see the resemblance.

However, this “reformation,” so to speak, was not with Asian Buddhism as a whole but with Buddhist institutions in some parts of Asia as they existed a century ago. And it was led primarily by Asians.

One Protestant “influence” explained by Obeyesekere and Gombrich is that “religion is privatized and internalized: the truly significant is not what takes place at a public celebration or in ritual, but what happens inside one’s own mind or soul.” Notice that this is the same criticism leveled by the historical Buddha against the Brahmins of his day — that direct insight was the key, not rituals.

Modern or Traditional; East Versus West

Today you can find the phrase “Buddhist Protestantism” being used to describe Buddhism in the West generally, particularly Buddhism practiced by converts. Often the term is juxtaposed with the “traditional” Buddhism of Asia. But the reality is not that simple.

First, Asian Buddhism is hardly monolithic. In many ways, including the roles and relationship of clergy and laypeople, there is considerable difference from one school and nation to another.

Second, Buddhism in the West is hardly monolithic. Don’t assume that the self-described Buddhists you met in a yoga class are representative of the whole.

Third, many cultural influences have impacted Buddhism as it has developed in the West. The first popular books about Buddhism written by westerners generally were more infused with European Romanticism or American Transcendentalism than with traditional Protestantism, for example. It’s also a mistake to make “Buddhist modernism” a synonym for western Buddhism. Many leading modernists have been Asians; some western practitioners are keen on being as “traditional” as possible.

A rich and complex cross-pollination has been going on for more than a century that has shaped Buddhism both East and West. Trying to shove all that into a concept of “Buddhist Protestantism” doesn’t do it justice. The term needs to be retired.

For a well-written and well-informed explanation of this cross-pollination, see The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan.

Anagarika Dharmapala: Buddhist Revivalist and Modernist

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was a Buddhist modernist who deeply influenced the early development of Buddhism in the West. He also played a leading role in the revival of Buddhism in his native Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and other parts of Asia.

Ceylon had been partly or entirely controlled by European nations since the early 16th century, and wherever European ships landed, Christian missionaries were not far behind. In 1796 control passed from the Dutch to the British, and Ceylon became a British colony. The British government encouraged the Christian missionaries to,open schools throughout the island to convert the people of Ceylon from Buddhism. By the mid-19th century, Buddhist institutions in Ceylon were fading, and the people were largely ignorant of the spiritual tradition of their ancestors.

It was into this anglicized, Christianized Ceylon that Dharmapala was born.

Dharmapala began life in 1864 as David Hewavitharane, a son of one of the wealthiest families in Colombo, and he was educated in the best British Christian academies in Ceylon. As a child he also came to enjoy spending time among Buddhist monks, even when he didn’t understand what they were talking about.

Among the Theosophists

David Hewavitharane was only 16 when the spiritualist Madame Blavatsky and her companion, Henry Steel Olcott, arrived in Ceylon. The pair publicly took the refuges at a large temple in Galle. After centuries of being told by whites that Christianity was the superior religion, the “white Buddhists” were embraced by the people of Ceylon.

Blavatsky and Olcott lit a fire in young Hewavitharane, and he soon fell into their orbit. The westerners had created a new religion by blending together elements of Asian traditions with big doses of western Transcendentalism and 19th century Orientalism, calling their beliefs”Theosophy.” Hewavitharane traveled with the pair, sometimes acting as translator. He worked with Olcott to establish Buddhist schools in Ceylon.

During this time he renounced his English name and began to call himself Anagarika (“homeless one”) Dharmapala (“protector of the dharma”). He didn’t take monks’ vows until very near the end of his life, but as a lay “home leaver” he vowed to keep the Eight Uposatha Precepts daily, and not just on special observance days. He ditched western clothing in favor of simple white or yellow robes that would not be mistaken for monks’ robes.

In time, however, Dharmapala broke off his association with the Theosophists. Olcott and Blavatsky held on to the Transcendentalist ideal of a universal religion, of which all established religious traditions are only fragments. Dharmapala came to see the dharma as the supreme truth, and he thought the westerners’ belief in a Universal Soul was more Hindu than Buddhist.

Spreading the Dharma

After his split with the Theosophists, Dharmapala became a leader in his own right. He worked to restore Buddhism to its central place in the culture of Ceylon. He also called for independence from Britain.

His influence spread beyond Ceylon when he co-founded the Mahabodhi Society in 1891. This organization restored Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha realized enlightenment, as a Buddhist pilgrimage site.

In 1993 Dharmapala traveled to Chicago to take part in the World Parliament of Religions. He and Rinzai Zen master Soyen Shaku both addressed the assembly. Although there had been Buddhist priests and teachers in the West for a few decades, this was arguably the first time non-ethnic Asian Americans heard about Buddhism from Buddhists on western soil.

The 29-year-old Dharmapala was a sensation. Press reports glowingly described his all-white robes, his black curly hair, and his gentle, refined face. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he spoke excellent English and had a good understanding of western culture, thanks to those British Christian academies.

Philosopher and author Paul Carus invited Dharmapala back to America a few more times to present talks on Buddhism, and so his influence in the West lasted long after the Parliament.

On one of his trips to America, Dhammapala stopped in London to visit author Edwin Arnold, whose Light of Asia was one of the first popular books about Buddhism published in English. The London trip inspired him to establish a small Theravada monastery in London; The London Buddhist Vihara opened in 1926.

Buddhist Modernism

In the West, Dharmapala “pitched” Buddhism to appeal to modernists who were seeking a spiritual tradition that was pro-science and anti-supernatural, a view of Buddhism that is still widely held in the West today.

His timing could not have been better. In the late 19th century Christianity was reeling from the challenge of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and psychology was just emerging as a new branch of science. Dharmapala wove science together with Buddhist teaching, arguing that the Buddha had taught things science was just beginning to discover.

In many ways Dharmapala’s presentation was a re-tooling of Buddhism, emphasizing some aspects of the teachings while de-emphasizing others. But it was brilliantly done, and it worked. Dharmapala’s influence on modern Buddhism can still be felt, in Asia as well as the West.

Dharmapala continued to lecture and write about Buddhism and to call for Ceylon’s independence from Britain. He was ordained a monk shortly before his death at the age of 68.

Buddhism in Korea

The carved image of the standing Buddha (마애불입상) on Gayasan, South Korea.
© Straitgate / Wikipedia Commons / Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Buddhism in Korea has a long and distinguished history, but not always a smooth one.

Today Korea is divided, North and South. Secretive North Korea is officially an atheistic state, although there is a Korean Buddhist Federation that is part of the government. Buddhist clergy are, in effect, public employees  Estimates of the number of Buddhists in North Korea range from 100,000 to just over one million.

South Korea is roughly 23 percent Mahayana Buddhist, 28 percent Christian, and about 46 percent of Koreans claim no religious affiliation. In recent years that has been considerable tension between South Korea’s Buddhists and fundamentalist Christians.

Early Buddhism in Korea (372-917)

Buddhism officially was introduced to Korea in 372 CE, while the Korean peninsula was divided into three kingdoms. A monk, an emissary from one of the several kingdoms in China, arrived with copies of sutras and Buddha images. It is suspected the Koreans already had some knowledge of Buddhism, however, through informal contact with other travelers.

Shamanism had been the primary religion of the Korean people before Buddhism and has remained part of Korea’s religious culture. Shamanism appears to have been blended into Buddhism soon after its introduction.

In the 6th century one of Korea’s three kingdoms, Silla, grew to become the dominant power of the Korean peninsula. Buddhism became the official religion of Silla during the reign of King Pophung (514-539). From then until late in the 8th century, many monks from Korea traveled to China to study and bring teachings back home.

One of these monks was Wonhyo (617-686), one of the most influential monks and scholars of all of Korean history. His extensive writing was influential in China and Japan as well as Korea.

Wonhyo was particularly interested in doctrinal coherence, and he surveyed the schools that had been transmitted to Korea by then, including HyayanTiantaiPure Land, and Ch’an (Zen). He systematically presented these diverse schools in a larger framework of Buddhist teaching to resolve their differences. The result is called Tongbulgyo or T’ong pulgyo, which means “interpenetrated Buddhism.”

Late in the 8th century Ch’an Buddhism, called Seon in Korea, became particularly prominent. Nine Seon monastic centers, called the Nine Mountains, were established.

A Golden Age (918-1392)

The Goryo Period was a time of political unity and stability in Korea, and Buddhism flourished, supported by the monarchy. Some consider this to be the golden age of Korean Buddhism.

The Korean Buddhist canon was published during this time. 81,000 of the woodblocks of this printing are stored at the Haein-sa on Mount Kaya, South Korea.

Prominent masters during this period included Jinul (1158-1210; also spelled Chinul) who is considered the founder of the Jogye order of Seon Buddhism, a dominant school in Korea today. Jinul was a reformer who integrated Hyayan teachings into Seon. He also encouraged meditation on koans.

As will happen with powerful institutions, toward the end of this period Buddhist institutions fell into corruption.

Persecution of Buddhism (1392-1910)

For the next five centuries, the Joseon Dynasty reigned in Korea and suppressed the practice of Buddhism. During this time Buddhist funerals and begging for alms were forbidden, and monks and nuns were restricted in their travels. Several thousand temples and monasteries were closed, and all schools but Seon Buddhism faded away in Korea.

Seosan Daesa (1520-1604) was a notable Seon master from this period. Seosan organized an army of warrior monks to repel a Japanese invasion of Korea that occurred between 1592 and 1598.He also made important contributions to the development of Seon. Most lineages of Seon in Korea today can be traced back to Seosan.

The Japanese Occupation (1910-1945)

Japan annexed Korea in 1910, which had the effect of ending the persecution of Buddhism. However, pressure was put on Korean monks to adapt to Japanese monastic practices. This included the ending of celibacy, since the Meiji Emperor had ended celibacy in Japanese Buddhismin the 19th century. The Japanese also insisted on loosening restrictions on wine and meat

.Some monks adapted; some did not. No Korean nuns accepted the Japanese adaptations, however.

In 1924 a new lay movement called Won Buddhism was established by Pak Chungbin ((1891-1943). Pak believed that the Buddhist teaching of Trikaya was represented, in one way or another, in all religions. Although Won’s doctrines are Buddhist, in organization and ceremonial observance it resembles Protestantism.

1945 to Today

Korea was liberated from Japan at the end of World War II, but almost immediately it was divided between North and South.  Most religion is suppressed in North Korea, although the government-run Buddhist institution, the Korean Buddhist Federation, does survive.

South Korean monks almost immediately were thrown into a turmoil over celibacy. The dominant Jogye order of Seon Buddhism insisted in a return to full monastic rules, including celibacy. After much rancor and court battles, the married monks were turned out of the monasteries and properties restored to the celibate Jogye.

In recent years there also has been considerable friction between Korea’s Christian fundamentalists and Buddhists. The fundamentalists have even attacked several monasteries and destroyed Buddhist art. For more on this development, see “Christian-Buddhist Tension in South Korea.”

Liu Tiemo, the “Iron Grindstone”

According to legend, Liu Tiemo (ca. 780-859) was born into a Chinese peasant family that lived near Mount Hua, in north central China. She was a short, plain girl who grew up helping her father farm a rich man’s plot of land. The family was poor and often hungry. When she was old enough to leave, she left.
Liu wandered through mountains and towns, often seeking shelter in convents. Eventually she asked to be ordained. She worked hard at study and meditation. After a few years she left the convent and began wandering again.
Zihu Heshang:

Liu Tiemo encountered nuns, monks, and teachers, and won a reputation as a fierce debater. When she met Master Zihu, he told Liu Tiemo that he’d heard she was hard to handle.”Who says this?” asked Liu.

“It’s conveyed from left and right,” Master Zihu replied.

“Don’t fall down, master,” she said, and turned to leave. He struck her.

Liu Tiemo sought out Master Guishan, and studied with him. Master Guishan was a famous teacher with 1,500 students, most of them men. Of these 1,500 he named only 43 his dharma heirs. One of these was Liu Tiemo. By now people were calling Liu “the Iron Grindstone,” because she ground to bits anyone who dared challenge her in debate. It was said she was as sharp as a stone-struck spark.

Blue Cliff Record, Case 24:

The Iron Grindstone is remembered in a koan.Iron Grindstone Liu arrived at Guishan. Guishan said, “Old cow, you came hah!”

Grindstone said, “In the coming day at Lookout Mountain (Taishan) there is a great assembly to provide monks with a vegetarian meal. Venerable, will you be leaving to go back there?”

Guishan relaxed his body and lay down to sleep.

Grindstone then left.

You can find a dharma talk explaining this mystical exchange here.

Shantideva’s Lecture

Shantideva (ca. 685-763; sometimes spelled Santideva) is best known as the author of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara, or The Way of the Bodhisattva. This accomplishment marks him as one of the patriarchs of Mahayana Buddhism. He was also the author of a lesser-known work, the Siksasamuccaya (“Training Anthology”).

For all of his importance to Mahayana Buddhism, however, we don’t know that much about him. The biographies written over the centuries probably are made up of folktales. But here is his standard biography.

Shantideva’s Story

Shantideva was said to have been a crown prince of a kingdom in what is now the western Indian state of Gujarat. The night before his coronation, Manjusri Bodhisattva came to him in a dream and told him to renounce his throne and instead dedicate himself to seeking enlightenment.

In another version of this story, on the night before his coronation Shantideva’s mother gave him a ceremonial bath in scalding water. When he complained, she said, “My son, this is nothing compared to the pain of being king.” After the bath, the prince departed.

After renouncing his throne the former prince lived for a time as a wandering mendicant. In time he came to the great learning center at Nalanda. He was ordained as a monk at Nalanda and given the name Shantideva, which means “god of peace.”

At Nalanda, Shantideva came across as a slacker. No one ever saw him study. He didn’t show up for practice debates. He was called “Three Realizations” because, it was assumed, his only activities were eating, sleeping and defecating.

It would not do to harbor such a do-nothing at Nalanda. The great monastery depended on the support of wealthy patrons to survive. In return, the patrons expected the monks to study and teach the dharma. If the patrons learned their donations were supporting the likes of Shantideva, they might withhold support.

So he had to go. Or else he had to be shamed into getting down to work. But how could that be accomplished?

It was decided to invite Shantideva to present a teaching to the entire university. This was a great honor usually given to the most accomplished students. He was to give his talk while sitting on a throne, which in some versions of the story was placed on a high platform without any stairs, to make him struggle to get to his seat.

On the day of the talk, Shantideva entered the great hall and made three prostrations to the throne. Then he effortlessly seated himself, to the astonishment of the audience.

Then he asked, “Should I teach you something that other monks have already presented? Or would you like to hear something new?” The audience called for the new teaching.

“Very well,” Shantideva said. And he proceeded to recite the verses of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara. These verses described the power of bodhicitta and how to cultivate it. They reviewed the Six Perfections and explained how the perfections also opened the heart to bodhicitta.

When his talk reached the sixth perfection, the Perfection of Wisdom, Shantideva began to rise into the air. He floated higher and higher, until the assembly only heard his voice but no longer saw him. Then his voice faded as well, and he entirely disappeared from Nalanda, never to return. In some versions of the story he is said to have returned to the life of a wandering mendicant.

Ruins of Nalanda

The Way of the Bodhisattva: An Introduction to the Bodhisattvacharyavatara

The  Bodhisattvacharyavatara, or “Way of the Bodhisattva,” by Shantideva is a seminal text of Mahayana Buddhism and a treasure of the world’s religious literature. Today it is primarily associated with Tibetan Buddhism, but its significance to all of Mahayana cannot be overstated.

The Bodhisattvacharyavatara, written about 700 CE, is said to present the entire spectrum of Mahayana teachings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, ‘If I have any understanding of compassion and the bodhisattva path, it all comes from studying this text.

The title is also sometimes translated “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” or “Undertaking the Way of the Bodhisattva.” There is also a shorter Sanskrit name, Bodhicaryavatara, which means “Entering the Path of Enlightenment.”

Shantideva (ca. 685-763; sometimes spelled Santideva) was a monk and scholar of the Madhyamika school who taught at the great learning center at Nalanda. Little else is known about him, although he is the subject of many fables and myths.

Contents of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara

The Bodhisattvacharyavatara is written in verse and describes the path to enlightenment, beginning with the arising of the desire to realize enlightenment for the sake of others (bodhicitta). Early Chinese and Tibetan manuscripts of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara are not arranged in exactly the same way, but the version of the text commonly translated into English has ten chapters.

The first three chapters focus on bodhicitta. Shantideva describes the power of bodhicitta to enlighten all beings and explains how to nurture bodhicitta in ourselves. This section also introduces us to the bodhisattva vow to save all beings. For example, this well-loved passage is in Chapter 3*:

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to cross the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

Read More: Bodhisattva Vows

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 focus on working with emotions and defilements. This middle section also elaborates on the Six Perfections or paramitas. The perfections of generosity and morality are explained in Chapter 5. Chapter 6 is centered on the perfection of patience, explaining how defilements in our minds keep us mired in selfishness and impatience.

In chapters 7, 8 and 9 Shantideva continues to elaborate on the paramitas. Chapter 7 is focused on the perfection of energy or diligence, and Chapter 8 is on the perfection of meditation. Chapter 9, on the perfection of wisdom, is considered the most challenging part of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara.  Here Shantideva goes most deeply into Nagarjuna‘s Madhyamika philosophy and the emptiness of phenomena.

Chapter 10 is a beautiful and lyric dedication of the merit of his work to all suffering beings, including beings in the hell realm.

Studying the Bodhisattvacharyavatara

There are several translations of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara in English; some are available in PDF form on the Web. If you are working with a teacher, he or she may prefer one translation over another. I am most familiar with the translation by the Padmakara Translation Group and published by Shambhala. There is a “companion” book to this volume, which is a commentary by His Holiness the Dalai Lama titled For the Benefit of All Beings: A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva (Shambhala, 2009).

Another very readable guide to the Bodhisattvacharyavatara is Pema Chodron’s No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva (Shambhala, 2003). Chodron notes that Chapter 9 needs a book to itself and for that points the reader to Transcendent Wisdom by the Dalai Lama and B. Alan Wallace (Snow Lion, Rev. Ed. 2009).

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*Translations by Padmakara Translation Group (Shambhala Publications, 1997, 2006).